June 4, 2006

Syngas Fermentation - The Next Generation of Ethanol

With the price of corn and corn futures rising rapidly in response to this accelerated period of ethanol refinery construction, ethanol contracts, and surging gasoline prices, the search for alternative biomass feedstock and biorefining processes has been given fresh impetus.

In addition to the many benefits common to renewable energy, biomass is particularly attractive because it is the only current renewable source of liquid transportation fuel. The land resources in the U.S. are capable of producing a sustainable supply of 1.3 billion tons per year of biomass. One billion tons of biomass would be sufficient to displace 30% or more of the country’s present petroleum consumption. Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply April 2005.

Canadian company Iogen has established an early foothold in securing investment capital and establishing international contracts and feasibility studies for their enzymatic hydrolysis process. Their technology uses a multi-staged process to pre-treat specific feedstock, to use enzymes to break down molecular bonds in the cellulosic material into sugars, and then to convert the sugars into ethanol using advanced microorganisms and fermentation.

In the emerging synthesis gas fermentation field, BRI Energy has developed a patented process using a bacterial bioreactor to convert gasified biomass into ethanol. They have a full functioning gasification to ethanol pilot plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas and have announced plans to deploy two commercial-scale facilities at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Fuel Frontiers, Inc. has teamed up with Startech to use plasma arc technology to convert tires into syngas for conversion to ethanol using a catalyst for a planned New Jersey refinery.

Another company in Canada Syntec Biofuel has developed a proprietary catalyst technology for selective ethanol synthesis. According to their website:

The overall process consists of a thermo-chemical conversion of synthesis gas (syngas) into ethanol in a bioreactor containing a catalyst. Syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be derived from any carbonaceous material including: natural gas, coal bed methane, landfill gas, digester gas and most importantly biomass gasification.

The Syntec ethanol synthesis process consists of 3 basic steps:

1• Production of syngas (CO, H2) either through steam reforming/ partial oxidation of biogas, landfill gas, or through the gasification of biomass feedstock.
2• Conversion of syngas to ethanol over Syntec catalyst.
3• Distillation of ethanol (high purity).

Their tests to date in a pilot plant has converted landfill gas instead of syngas produced from gasification.

Thanks to James Fraser of The Energy Blog for the press release on the purchase of the Syntec ethanol synthesis process by Netco, a Washington State company based in Vancouver, Canada.

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